I was a sophomore in high school when Hamilton hit Broadway and suddenly made my love of American history and musical theater “cool.” I won’t bore you with the details of my fandom, but I follow the unbelievably talented original cast and their post-Hamilton careers with interest. Whenever they come out with something new, I am sure to check it out. So, you can imagine my excitement when I learned that Leslie Odom Jr.’s (aka Aaron Burr, sir) The Christmas Album was coming out. He’d released his jazzy Simply Christmas in 2016.
My anticipation was only heightened when I found out it was also to include “Maoz Tzur,” the anthem of my December holiday of choice: Chanukah. As anyone in a Jewish WhatsApp group with me could attest to, I was absolutely psyched.
Odom Jr.’s “Maoz Tzur” did not disappoint. He performed the Hebrew song — in which the first line translates as “O Fortress, Rock of my salvation, it is pleasant to praise you” — as a duet with his wife, Nicolette Robinson. Their soaring rendition of the music made for an emotional and immersive listening experience. The track begins with the classic melody of the song, which is sung by Jewish families across the world after lighting their menorahs during the eight-day Chanukah festival.
After establishing this theme, they expound on it throughout the rest of the three minutes and 52 seconds using different harmonies, rhythms and a wonderful piano interlude. I don’t often think about “Maoz Tzur” as anything other than a song that I sing every year that delays my eating latkes by a minute or two. However, after hearing Odom Jr. and Robinson sing the song with such emotion and musicality, I could not help but think about the meaningful lyrics and themes of the song. They recount the many times that the Jewish people have been saved from destruction. It is a song full of hope and gratitude, and the duo’s interpretation only heightens this deeply relevant message.
Besides modern classics and old favorites, like “Last Christmas” and “Little Drummer Boy,” Odom Jr. recorded two new songs for the album, called “Snow” and “Winter Song.” These two songs fit perfectly in with his classics and bring the cheer and jingles that are synonymous with this time of year. There is a balance of Odom Jr.’s vocal talent that he exhibits on Broadway with the necessary simplicity that Christmas songs need so that everyone can sing along.
Even Odom Jr.’s best classics have twists on them that highlight what this time of year means for his diverse range of audiences. For example, his “Little Drummer Boy” includes the Mzansi Youth Choir, a South African group whose mission is “affording talented, underprivileged teenagers and young adults the opportunity to proficiently perform locally and abroad.”
The choir adds a richness and youthfulness to the song that reminds listeners of childhood innocence and glee during the holiday season. Odom Jr. takes a classic Irish tune and, similar to his performance of “Maoz Tzur,” uses the artistic tools at his disposal to emphasize the deeper theme behind the music as he is performing.
The only song on the album that he performs relatively simply and without much interpretation is in the New Year’s classic: “Auld Lang Syne.” This artistic choice for the penultimate song on the album served to highlight its message just as effectively as his inclusion of different styles and voices in the other melodies. “Auld Lang Syne” is pure nostalgia; I, for one, have been known to shed a few tears listening to it each year watching When Harry Met Sally. Odom Jr. revels in the song’s simple melody, allowing listeners to reflect on “times long past” while listening to the sweet combination of guitar and his voice.
While his version of this song has become my new favorite on its own, listening to it in the context of the entire album is an otherworldly experience. The album shows off Odom Jr.’s intentionality when constructing it, as well as the mix of joy and nostalgia that comes with the holiday season, especially this year.
So, if you find yourself nostalgic about past Decembers of yore, struggling to whip up the same level of holiday cheer in 2020 or just in the mood to hear Leslie Odom Jr.’s beautiful voice, make yourself a cup of hot chocolate, wrap yourself in a warm blanket and enjoy the music.